Consumption: A Modern Affliction
There was, for conspicuous consumption, perhaps no time quite as memorable as the 1980s in the history of the United States. In particular, the ideology codified by Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho encapsulated past transgressions while simultaneously heralding the arrival of a new trend in domestic identities. Patrick Bateman, the book’s protagonist, continually relates to his environment through image and demonstrates an adept understanding of social structures, using the language of branding to translate goods into value. For Bateman, manufactured products play an integral role in defining the nature of interpersonal relationships and his emotional state is often linked to the relative worth of his possessions as compared to the property of others (Ellis 1991). The brand holds such incredible power for Bateman and his peers that Patrick is not surprised at a colleague mistaking him for Marcus Halberstam, another character in the book—Bateman reasons that the two men share a number of similar traits, noting that Marcus “also has a penchant for Valentino suits and clear prescription glasses,” thus cementing, for Bateman at least, the connection between definition of self-identity and consumer goods (Ellis, 89). In the view of individuals like Patrick Bateman, the clothes literally make the man.
While the example of American Psycho might appear dated to some, one only needs to update the novel’s objects in order to glimpse a striking similarity between the pervasive consumer-oriented culture of the 1980s and that of modern youth. Apple’s iPod has replaced the Walkman, caffeine has become the generally accepted drug of choice, and an obsession with social networking profiles has supplanted a preoccupation with business cards. To be sure, Ellis’ depiction does not map precisely on modern teenage culture as some elements of society have changed over the years (and Ellis describes a world of professional twenty-somethings who participate in a setting somewhat alien to most contemporary high school students), but one can argue that the core theme of identification with branding creates a common link between the world of Ellis’ 1980s Manhattan and the space inhabited by current college applicants.
In order to further understand the effects that consumer culture might have on modern youth, this paper will first explore a brief history of branding in the United States throughout the 20th Century in order to develop a context and precedent for the argument that the current generation of students applying to college has developed in a society that is saturated with branding, marketing, and advertising; this environment has, in turn, allowed youth to conceptualize themselves as brands and to think of their projected image in terms of brand management. During the course of this article, discussion will also mention the history of the term “teenager” to demonstrate that it was closely linked with marketing since the descriptor’s creation and that this sentiment has impacted the manner in which American society has conceptualized the demographic. By reviewing the modern history of branding, I hope to demonstrate that although the consequences of a consumer culture might manifest uniquely in today’s youth, the oft-lamented incident is not merely a product of our times.
This paper will also attempt to address the commoditization of the college applicant by examining the confluence between branding culture, youth culture, and the admission process in order to show that students are not the only ones whose perspectives are shaped by the influences of consumerism. After a proposal of how and why branding affects modern culture, I suggest that we, as admission officers, can unconsciously encourage students’ dependence on the paradigm of branding (and its associated vocabulary) as we come to rely on the ability of the framework created by branding culture to activate networks of associations that, in turn, further aid us in readily understanding and conceptualizing applicants. To this end, the cognitive organizational function of branding as a type of narrative structure will be explored. Further supporting this position, an argument will be made that latent biases in the college application process may also help to reinforce the high/low culture dichotomy by privileging particular kinds of actions and experiences over others. A trickle-down effect then encourages youth applying to college to adopt the language of branding in order to present themselves as an ideal candidate for a particular institution, thus consecrating the importance of branding in the bidirectional relationship between the individual and the institution.
Living in America at the End of the Millennium
The history of consumer culture in the United States provides an important context for understanding the actions and attitudes of contemporary applicants. In fact, to discuss the history of the American teenager is to recount, in part, past socio-cultural effects of marketing. Exploring the roots of consumerism in the 1960s,[i] the following account will attempt to, with broad strokes, relay key points regarding the integration of branding and marketing into youth culture.
The 1960s marked a particular period of unrest in America as Baby Boomers began to clash with the G.I. Generation. Perhaps most significantly, the focus of discourse at this time shifted toward issues of youth culture with deep-seeded frustrations beginning to turn into anger as young adults struggled to define and express their individuality; the anti-establishment movement desperately wanted to break free from the control exuded by the State and corporations, eventually maturing a countercultural sentiment started by the Beat Generation into a milieu that gave birth to hippies and war protests. Baby Boomers, as a demographic group, also occupied a rather unique place in American history, coming into young adulthood during a time of post-war prosperity and the solidification of the middle-class. Suddenly, upward social movement became increasingly possible for a generation that enjoyed increased amounts of leisure time and disposable income. This period simultaneously saw the birth of the Cultural Studies movement, which began to recognize that individuals were not merely passive consumers but people who possessed a sense of agency (Arvidsson 2006). Although formal study would not flourish until the 1970s, the creation of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies would prove to be a pivotal milestone in the understanding of branding and youth, for social scientists now had a systematic way to investigate the phenomenon brewing in the hearts and minds of the Baby Boomers.
Cultural observers also quickly noticed the shifting economic trend and began to express their findings in prominent publications of the time; Dwight MacDonald labeled the American teenager as a “merchandising frontier,” a comment that would not go unnoticed by marketing companies looking to capitalize on this new trend (1958). In fact, although the term “teenager” had only recently emerged in literature, companies such as Hires Root Beer had already begun peer-to-peer campaigns among youth in order to promote a product, thus demonstrating recognition of the teenager as a potential consumer (Quart 2003a). The understanding of the teenager as a marketing demographic would prove to be a label that would continue to influence youth through the rest of the century. The development of the teenage market, along with the corresponding rise of teen-oriented culture and identity, caries through to the present: seeds sown by Beatlemania have helped to develop an environment that permits fervor for teen idols like Justin Bieber. Perhaps more disconcerting is the relatively recent extension of this phenomenon, with marketers aiming at the “tween” audience (loosely conceptualized as 8-12 years of age) using children’s programming media such as animation and Radio Disney as their chosen vehicles (Donahue and Cobo 2009; McDonald 2007). However, irrespective of their status as tween or teen, American youth can arguably be understood to exist in an aspirational culture that highlights the benefits of consumption.
Before proceeding further, it should be noted that the connection between youth and products is a rather neutral manifestation despite its current negative connotation. We can, for example, consider how individuals in the 1970s appropriated products in forms of resistance and how the movement of Punk essentially imbued recycled products with new and innovative meanings in the creation of a powerful subculture. The current generation of students has also matured in a culture of new media, whose hallmark is that consumers are simultaneously producers. Many are most likely aware of the possibilities of these new platforms—from Twitter, to Facebook, to YouTube—on some level, but the extent of production may elude those who are not actively involved; even individuals wholly enmeshed in this environment might not consider how mainstays like the creation of Internet memes (e.g., LOLcats), the various “Cons” (e.g., ROFLCon, VidCon, Comic-Con, etc.), and a culture of remix serve to position individuals squarely in a setting defined by its consumptive and productive practices. The challenge is, however, that the current generation’s products have become less tangible and more abstract: products now consist of things like data, intellectual property, and Negroponte’s “bits” (1995). Ultimately, it is the focus on individuals’ relationship to consumerism, often embodied, but not necessarily caused, by a connection with products, that results in observed negative aspects.
The most readily salient effect of this consumerist culture mixed with the cult of celebrity—and, if recent documentaries like Race to Nowhere are to believed, an overemphasis on achievement—is that children start to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they don’t have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) rather than on their strengths. Brands, however, provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by acting as a substitute for value: the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon teens, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if teens aren’t good at anything, they can still be rich and be okay (Quart 2003b). For some, this reliance on branding might explain a relative lack of substance amongst the teenage population, but the ramifications of a culture dominated by consumerism extend much further.
Brands can also be understood in the context of their ability to create and foster communities, prominently demonstrated by users’ sworn allegiance to Macintosh computers and Apple.[ii] The concept of a brand (or even a logo) can provide many of the benefits that come with membership to a group and, as such, also serve to define adopters’ identities. Conceptualizing brand as a community is a particularly powerful thought when considering teenagers, an age group comprised of individuals who are arguably searching for a sense of belonging. Indeed, the very act of consumption can be thought of as a practice whereby individuals work to construct their self-identities and a common social world through products and the shared sets of meaning that those goods embody (Kates 2002; Belk 1988). In a manner that mirrors the underlying theme of American Psycho we thus begin to see that manufactured items start to possess a value beyond their utilitarian function through a process that seems natural and inherent; it is only when we begin to privilege particular commodities—and communities by extension—that we being to understand the negative role that branding can play for teenagers.
Further complicating the relationship, branding culture also exerts an influence on youth through lifestyle. Although the basis of this connection can be seen in the relationship between consumer culture and branding, brands can affect the process in more indirect ways. A number of factors, for example, from the media emphasis on teen culture to increased pressure surrounding college admission, might be forcing adolescents to classify themselves earlier than ever. Emphasis placed on entrance to selective universities provides an excellent demonstration of the drastic changes that young people have had to undergo in the early part of their lives; for many students aspiring to elite schools, college acceptance (and attendance) confers a particular type of status and failure to achieve this goal by the age of 18 represents an extremely large disappointment. In order to secure this dream, young people might begin to package themselves—a “successful applicant” is no longer a student who did his best, but rather one who meets a specific set of criteria—turning their lives into a product, which they hope to sell to colleges and universities.
Branding associated with college admission showcases how marketing has developed into the promotion of a particular lifestyle, as opposed to a means of distinguishing and differentiating products (or, perhaps more cynically, as an extension of this process). In many areas, the mystique of the brand has become the important factor for consideration; the actual quality of an item does not seem to be as important as its perceived value.
The Rise of the Ad (Captandum)
When considering the state of modern youth, however, one might not see the packaging process associated with college admission as much of an anomaly. Children growing up in recent decades have been exposed to large amounts of media and advertising, which has served to cultivate a latent affinity with embedded narrative forms. The term “Adcult,” coined by University of Florida professor James Twitchell, depicts contemporary American society as an arena saturated with the lingering influences of commercialism (1996). Although the phrase results from a combination of “advertising” and “culture,” one can easily imagine Twitchell describing a group whose ideology revolves around concepts of marketing through a play on the word “cult.”
Advertising and branding, largely products of consumer culture, have a rather obvious economic impact; while one can certainly debate the mechanism(s) behind this process, one need only compare similar products with and without marketing schemes to ascertain that advertising can have an impact on manufactured goods. Rooted in the economic sphere, the development and presence of advertising is closely linked to surpluses in products—excess space in media, radio parts, and merchandise have all forwarded the need for, or existence of, advertising—and thusly can be understood in terms of monetary systems. As a pertinent example, compare the presence and impact of advertising on culture before and after the Industrial Revolution, when machinery allowed for the development of excess amounts of merchandise.
Staying solely within the framework of Economics, consider that advertising can help individuals to organize knowledge and to make informed choices about the world. In some ways, advertising tells consumers how their money can be best spent or utilized, given that currency is a limited resource. Yet, while arguably functional, anyone who has experienced a good piece of advertising knows that the reach of marketing exceeds the limits of economics—exemplary ads have the power to make us feel something. Although informal research can support the idea that memorable advertisements often influence us on an emotional level, a study by Stayman and Batra suggests that affective states resulting from advertising exposure can be stored and retrieved for later recall (1991). While the authors freely admit that they did not ascertain the exact mechanism for this process, one might posit that emotional responses to ads could result from the way that advertisements interact with our established belief systems and identity structures.
Continuing in the same vein, Twitchell contends that, “like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996, 110). While some might object to the mixing of influences in areas such as Advertising, Religion, Education, or Art, (interestingly some overlap is acceptable but the issue remains murky) a certain amount of comingling is inevitable if we classify each entity as a belief system—a certain way of seeing the world complete with its own set of values—and understand that individuals might incorporate multiple elements into their particular worldview. Ideologies such as Religion or Advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996, 29). Each characteristic also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of Advertising, Religion, Education, and Art play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, with a common thread being that followers can classify themselves in terms of the external: God, works of art, name brands, etc. Cynics might note that this phenomenon is not unlike the practice of carnival sideshows mentioned in Twitchell’s Adcult—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (1996). Although the attraction may assume different forms, it survives because it continues to speak to a deep desire for structure—the myth of advertising works for the same reasons that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers. The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how advertising can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process also evidenced by marketing techniques’ ability to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu.[iii]
Despite the intricate and multi-faceted nature of its impact, we can use the narrative characteristics of advertising as framework for understanding its influence. On a basic level, the format of advertising typically takes the form of a loose narrative, complete with implied back-story—television spots, in particular, provide a salient example of this. Yet, the messages present in advertising can also cause us to question our sense of self as we evaluate our belief systems and values as previously mentioned. Consider how personal identities can result from narrative or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard and Prusak 2005, 16). Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of Adcult is felt where we least expect it: in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, 124). Advertising, it seems, not only allows us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of youth in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner and Gross 1976).
The Medium Is the Message
Understanding the process by which the framework of branding affects contemporary society enables modern scholars to conceptualize how consumer culture can shift (or even create) paradigmatic structures that have far-reaching effects for college applicants. Recasting branding and advertising as manifestations of modern myths proves crucial to understanding how the messages, as narrative, help to convey complex ideas in a relatable format, making sense out of a potentially overwhelming wave of information. Consider how the first iterations of narrative, myths and legends, informed the populace about the rules of a world (e.g., why the sun rose or how humans had come to be) in a process that mirrors one of the previously discussed functions of advertising; although many have now come to accept scientific explanations in lieu of (or possibly in conjunction with) these tales, the fact remains that stories can serve to develop cognitive scaffolding as we evaluate foreign concepts. Narrative structure provides a guide for people to follow as they absorb additional information, easing the progression of learning (Perlich and Whitt 2010). This educational element, similar to the one existent in the concept of play, allows individuals to learn and internalize intricate lessons without any overt effort. However, when considering this process, it is important to realize that narrative, in choosing which facts to highlight, also chooses which facts to exclude from a story, which might be just as significant.
For some, the process of inclusion and exclusion might seem oddly similar to the creation (or recording) of history; certain facts become relevant and serve to shape our perception of an event while others fade into obscurity. If we were to take a second, however, and think about this notion, we would realize that narratives often served as the first oral histories for a given population. Individuals entrusted with this position in these societies were the “keepers of information,” whose ability to recount narrative shaped their community’s collective memory, and, thus, a key part of the community’s combined sense of identity (Eyerman 2004; Williams 2001). Performing a similar role as the oral historians of the past, modern society’s sense of shared knowledge can be understood to be influenced by the commercial storytelling that is branding (Twitchell 2004). The ramification of branding’s ability to affect American culture in this manner is profound: with its capacity to color perceptions, branding can influence the communal pool that forms the basis for social norms and cultural capital.
The notion of narrative’s impact on the sense of self is an interesting one to consider, particularly in youth-oriented marketing, as it affects individuals who are in the process of forming their identities (as opposed to adults whose self-concepts might be, one might argue, more static); in a process analogous to branding, adolescents try on different personalities like clothes, looking to see what fits. While not entirely insidious, teen marketing can exploit this natural process by providing shortcuts to identity through the power of branding. Altering perceptions, branding can activate particular sets of associations that have been engrained by marketing into adolescents and therefore act as a value heuristic for youth. For teenagers navigating the social circles of their peer groups, labels can make an enormous difference.
Tricks are for Kids?
Young people, however, are not the only ones prone to mental shortcuts; adults—including those who make evaluative judgments—have also been conditioned to rely on heuristics as guidelines, using experience to help them determine which rules to keep (Dhami 2003; McGraw, Hasecke and Conger 2003). While heuristics generally provide users with an accurate conclusion, they are notoriously fallible and consistently exploitable.[iv] The question then becomes: if adults are subject to heuristics in decision-making processes and these heuristics are sometimes faulty, what heuristic(s) might be active during the evaluation of candidates for admission and how might this affect our method?
Even if we grant that the particular nuances of the application review will differ by individual institution, we can still examine the admission process in terms of branding culture. File evaluation partially rests upon our ability to sort, organize, and simplify massive amounts of information in order to gain perspective on our applicant pool. While reading the application, we filter the information through our own unique lenses—the networked set of thoughts, associations, and biases that we bring to the table—as we attempt to develop a context for the student represented by the file in front of us. Buzzwords (e.g., “President,” “Scout,” “Legacy,” “2400,” “Minority”) in the application, acting like puzzle pieces, instantly activate particular collections of neural pathways as we begin to ascribe value; buzzwords, then, can be understood to function in a manner similar to brands and advertising.
Harkening back to the continuum of high culture and low culture, we can also think about how some key terms are privileged over others. How, for example, does the president of a school club differ from the president of an online guild? Knowing nothing else, I believe that many of my colleagues would favor the established activity over the unknown. For these individuals, I would argue that past experiences with students had most likely factored into the development of a heuristic regarding student desirability, resulting in a series of mental leaps that, over time, would grow into instinct. While good readers learn to continually challenge themselves and check their biases, there might be a systematic devaluation of particular identities in the admission process—an opinion piece by Ross Douthat in the New York Times suggests that lower-class whites might just be such a demographic (2010)—not out of active bigotry but simply because the brand does not resonate with any of our pre-set associations regarding a successful student. Worse, perhaps, we unwittingly privilege individuals with large amounts of social capital (and its inherent advantages), favoring those who know to participate in the “right” activities.
In a similar vein, my research at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism hopes to provoke discussion in this area by attempting to look at the trajectory between popular culture and civic engagement; in essence my colleagues and I hope to discover how seemingly innocuous activities in the realm of pop might actually allow students to develop skills that allow them to participate meaningfully in their communities. We believe that popular culture can act as a training ground for young people, allowing them to cultivate skills in the areas of rhetoric, agency, and self-efficacy before applying their talents in the “real” world. We recognize that the actions and experiences undergone in the world of pop culture can be ambiguous and difficult to understand; we also argue, though, that these traits are no less valuable to youth because they are not easily comprehendible. For us, some of the most amazing things happen in fandoms related to the iconic world of Harry Potter, YouTube communities of Living Room Rock Gods, and political statements in World of Warcraft (From Participatory Culture to Public Participation 2010). Ultimately, we hope to challenge public perceptions regarding participation in fan communities, demonstrating that popular culture fills a uniquely productive role in the lives of its participants.
The Next Big Thing
In our attempts to do good, we preach admission tips at college fairs and workshops telling students how they can develop their applications and stand out from their peers without coming across as packaged. We tell applicants to cultivate a point of view, or an image, or a passion—yet, how is this, ultimately, different from asking a student to define and market a brand? Are we subtly encouraging our youth to turn themselves into products with the additional askance that they not seem like man-made fabrications? What is our ethical responsibility in responding to a college culture infused with lovemarks and their concept of loyalty beyond reason (Roberts 2005)? Does the structure of our applications cause students to begin to consider themselves in terms of taglines and talking points as they scramble to mold themselves into the image of the ideal student? This is not our intent, but I fear that it is our future. If we, as professionals in Higher Education, do not understand the possible implications of branding culture upon ourselves, our students, and our occupation, we cannot hope to begin to address the commoditization of college applicants.
[i] A more complete history would begin with the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, but mention of this is omitted in the interest of space as it is not directly relevant to the youth population. There are, however, interesting examples in this decade of branding’s movement away from mere signification to a means of differentiating the self in a culture dominated by norms of conformity. More information on the phenomenon of conformity and avoidance of ostentatious display can be found in William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956).
[ii] It should be noted that Apple seemed to grasp this concept fairly early on and developed a successful series of ad campaigns around the idea of community, most notably the “Think Different” slogan and the recent rash of “Mac vs. PC” television spots. The “Think Different” campaign, in particular, positioned users of Macs as a group in league with great thinkers of the modern era and also invoked the principle of psychological reactance in order to further strengthen the inter-community bonds.
[iii] The concurrent horizontal and vertical spread of advertising is reminiscent of memes, a concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, memes represent discrete units of cultural knowledge that propagate in a particular society (analogous to genes) through a number of transmission methods (1976). While the concept of memetics certainly spans across areas other than advertising, Dawkins notably included, as examples of memes, catch phrases (i.e., slogans), melodies (i.e., jingles), and fads. Consequentially, although advertising inevitably forms a new type of culture in societies, ads also serve to broaden exposure to, or strengthen the connections of, existing aspects of culture for those subjected to it as they burrow deep into our collective society.
[iv] There are many volumes written on this subject from the perspectives of both Social Psychology and Advertising. As a brief example, I will mention that a fairly common heuristic positions cost as directly proportional to value. The foundation for this equation lies in the belief that more expensive items tend to be better quality, more exclusive, or somehow desired. For a more comprehensive review of heuristics in the realm of persuasion, please see Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Cialdini 1984).